As genealogists, we sometimes overlook the cause of death in records. The jargon is unfamiliar or the terms so old we can’t find them in modern dictionaries. What our ancestors died of can tell us a lot about the region where they lived and the times they lived in. Unlike names and dates, what they died of tells you something specific about your ancestors (even if it is only how he/she died).
Death Registers Tell Us How Hard Plantation Life Was
Looking down a death register page is a little daunting. Plantation life was not easy. Disease and tragedy marked every day. Some illnesses that are no more than an inconvenience by today’s standards, were deadly in the 1800s.
Issues such as hygiene, access to medical care, harsh working conditions, limitations on medical science, and food scarcity made life so much more difficult.
Where Did They Get Medical Care?
Each plantation was supposed to have its own doctor as laid out by the Kingdom of Hawaii and the Hawaiian Sugar Plantation Association. It was part of the sugar plantation contract that each laborer signed.
However, being on the company payroll, some doctors were encouraged to be more concerned with limiting lost work days than healing. A laborer staying in bed all day was a loss for the plantation.
Plantation laborers had to earn their wages. If a laborer didn’t work, his or her family went unfed. The pressure was even stronger if one spouse was disabled or incapacitated in some way and unable to work.
Many worked when they shouldn’t. Their lives were shortened by the constant pushing by their work ethic, sense of duty, and the plantation system.
Others were pushed by the plantation doctor and indirectly the plantation management to go back to work sooner than later. There are stories of workers fighting fevers and injuries returning to the fields. Some plantations were better and some worse in that respect.
You might be surprised to know that many families had a doctor, healer, or midwife within their ranks. These arts were handed down from one person to another within the family. Originally our Portuguese ancestors brought Portuguese healing methods to the islands, but as they interacted with other ethnicities, they blended their practices with Hawaiian and Asian practices.
My great great aunt, Marie (Pacheco) Cosma, was the family’s midwife and doctor. There were others in the family who were trained, too. I bet there was one or two in your family, too!
There Wasn’t Any Protection from Most Diseases
Tuberculosis, Hansen’s disease or leprosy, and flu epidemics ravaged communities. Their presence was a merciless reminder of life at the turn of the century. Disease could spread through a family and community very quickly. They were common throughout plantation communities.
Leprosy was particularly difficult to deal with. So little was known about it. Fear spread wherever the disease was present. I’ve wonder why one person in my family contracted the disease but not others. It wasn’t as easy to contract leprosy as you might think.
Accidents On and Off the Plantation Were Common
Accidents cut many a laborer’s life short. Plantation work was strife with opportunities for accidents. Laborers worked with dangerous equipment in dangerous situations 10-12 hours a day.
They were subjected to risks all the time.
On the job injuries were common in many fields at the turn of the century. There were no laws to protect workers from these dangers. The laborers, in affect, were dependent on the plantation management and could not easily refuse work no matter how dangerous.
Some of the Causes of Death Found in the 1898 Death Register, Kauai
This list of causes of death comes from pages in the 1898 death register for Kauai. This information is from a random group of 39 deaths. Note that for this small group the leading cause of death was fever. This is purely anecdotal to give you an idea of what people died from.
- Asthma 2
- Child Birth 1
- Croup 1
- Diarrhea 1
- Dropsy 4
- Drowned 2
- Dysentery 1
- Fever 8
- Heart Disease 4
- Hemorrhage 1
- Impacted Bowels 1
- Inanition 2
- Injured Spine 1
- Leprosy 1
- Old Age 4
- Paralysis 1
- Pneumonia 2
- Sore Throat 1
This glossary of medical terminology is really helpful. I learned that dropsy is a form of edema, or water retention. I always thought it was something that pertained only to fish.
© 2002 Melody Lassalle